Stella Ricci is the premier baker and chocolatier of the Sannio and a very entertaining woman. I had the opportunity to watch her give a fascinating lecture/demonstration on the making of Babà and Sfogliatelle, two of the many pastries that are now legendary in Campania.
Babà are Campania’s version of cupcakes. Made with flour, yeast, eggs, sugar and LOTS of butter, these mini cakes look like little upside-down chef’s hats. The dough is whisked energetically for almost half an hour, and is turned out only after it makes a slapping sound in the beater.
Then comes the interesting part. The extra kneading of the dough is performed by taking a handful of the mixture and throwing it – much like a yo-yo or paddle ball – into the air and catching it again. After this motion is repeated a few times it is then spezzato, or broken off, just like mozzarella. The dough is pinched through the top of the hand and dropped into little individual baking tins. After cooking and cooling, the babà is soaked in a syrupy mixture of hot water, sugar and rum, then squeezed dry like a sponge. This is how it is sold, but once home it is doused with additional rum before serving.
The dish originated in Lemberg in the 1600’s, when it was known as kugelhopf. The story goes that the deposed king of Poland Stanislas Leszczynska, tasted the dessert while exiled in France. He found the cake dry and threw it off his plate in disgust where it landed in a puddle of rum that was on the table. He watched as the cake soaked up the liquor and decided to taste it again. He was so delighted with the result that he named it after his favorite story-book hero, Ali Baba, and it eventually became know simply as babà.